Scotland’s west coast has as big a reputation for its wide variety of weather and strong tides as it does for its breath-taking beauty.
With such stark contrasts in the weather and sailing conditions a day to day part of the area, it is easy to be intimidated or put off. Yet the Hebrides offers some of the finest sailing in the world, providing protected cruising grounds at the heart of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. And while careful planning is essential up here, help and advice is plentiful with numerous guides and suggested itineraries available to assist those who are visiting for the first time. You will find plenty of local folk who will let you in on the secrets of the area too, so you are guaranteed to enjoy a magical time of it.
The bottom line is simple, sailing in Scotland is a must.
Most sailing visitors arrive from the South and this first into Scotland passage brings you into the Firth of Clyde past the distinctive muffin shaped island of Ailsa Craig, which marks its entrance. As if drawing the curtains back, each mile from on in here reveals a steady stream of hints as to the size and beauty of this cruising territory. And if you think it will just be more of the same, be assured this is just the beginning; as you head further North the scenery gets ever more dramatic
For most people, their first stop in Scotland is on the Firth of Clyde itself, either at Troon Marina, which is convenient for Prestwick airport or Largs Marina to the North.
Reaching the fabled West Coast still requires a trip West around the Mull of Kintyre (see if you can sail through without that song getting stuck on heavy repeat in your head!) unless your yacht is small enough to slip through the Crinan Canal. Make sure you check against the maximum channel dimensions where draft is generally the biggest issue. You can get the full picture from the Crinan Canal Guide). If you can squeeze through, the nine mile long canal with 15 locks (all but two of them manually operated) offers a very special trip. Most crucially it avoids the need to sail around the Mull of Kintyre and gets you straight into the heart of the Inner Hebrides without further ado. Obviously, the destination is an end in itself but it is also a fantastic and unusual pleasure to slip slowly past the stunning Scottish countryside on your way.
This is an island you must visit - if not for its beauty, then at least for the many fine whisky distilleries that have been producing Scotch for hundreds of years. Even though it is only 25 miles long, there are nine active distilleries producing some of the finest single malts known to mankind including; Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Jura, Caol Isla, Ardbeg, Kilchoman and Bowmore. There are plenty of opportunities to visit the distilleries (where you will receive a warm welcome) and a variety of tours are available. The main harbour is Port Ellen, which makes the perfect base to explore this famous island. There are several anchorages along Islay’s south coast which can be considered but be aware of the prevailing winds and strong local tides and check to see if they are a suitable choice on the day.
A short 20 mile hop East from Islay brings you to the tiny yet super-hospitable island of Gigha. This beautiful place is surrounded by turquoise seas and fringed with white sand beaches. Since 2002, it has been owned by the community, which explains the warm welcome. Gigha is only 7 miles long and a mile and a half wide, yet it boasts its very own Michelin recommended Boathouse Restaurant which has to be on the top of your list for fantastic five star food. The island also has some great walks with stunning views and awesome sunsets – make sure you don’t miss the spectacular Achamore Gardens. If you’re a keen golfer, there is challenging nine hole course with set in amazing landscape to distract you when you’re searching for your ball in the rough. The island is also renowned for its creamy milk and ice cream. Ardminish Bay is the most popular area to anchor with 22 moorings and a pontoon available. You can find more information on the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust website.
Heading North you can enjoy stops in either Coabh Haven (known as the gateway to the Isles) or Oban marina on the island of Kerrera. Or, if you have the time, stop off at both these amazing locations. Loch Aline is a well protected and tranquil loch. Set on the North side of the Sound of Mull it offers more stunning scenery, great walks and plenty of impressive castles to explore. It is accessible through a narrow entrance but take care as the available depth is limited, so check your draft before you set off. A 10 minute walk from the pontoons in Lochaline, The White House Restaurant comes highly recommended, although you have to plan your visit carefully as it is only open on Tuesdays and Saturdays for lunch and dinner – book in advance to avoid disappointment. You will find a wealth of information about the area on the Loch Aline Harbour website.
At the North West end of the island of Mull, Tobermory is famous for its picturesque seafront where the brightly painted cottages makes it one of the most photographed harbours in Scotland. The twin hammerhead pontoon can accommodate up to 50 boats and you will find an additional 38 visitor moorings in the harbour. Walking, golf, cycling, historic and cultural, scenery are all among the main attractions here. Wildlife watching is very popular here including at Europe’s first catch and release aquarium where creatures stay for a maximum of four weeks before being released back into the wild. Aside from the variety of opportunities for eating and drinking, don’t miss out on the chance to visit the Tobermory distillery located on the harbour seafront. You can sample and buy their award-winning whisky and gin here, as well as get an insight into the process of distilling and maturing the spirit. Follow up with dinner at one of our favourites – Café Fish, where they say “the only thing frozen are our fishermen”!
Set on the island of Erraid off the southwestern tip of Mull, Tinkers Hole is a snug but spectacular anchorage where mooring lines are run to strategically placed rings ashore to keep your yacht in place. If you are heading around from Tobermory the passage around the western side of Mull takes you past Fingal’s Cave on the tiny island of Staffa, famous for its volcanic basalt columns. Here, the breath-taking natural acoustics of Fingal's Cave inspired Mendelssohn to compose The Hebrides Overture. The trip also takes you past the island of Iona and its restored medieval abbey. The beautiful beaches are great for swimming and snorkelling (weather permitting!), and there are wonderful walks and good rock climbing to be had in yet more stunning scenery.
Colin & Anne Mitchell – Oyster 565 'Bruadarach'
“The Inner Hebrides offer stunning landscapes, lochs, beaches anchorages, wildlife, walks, mountain climbing and if all of that exercise gives you an appetite then there’s world beating food, especially fish all washed down with a wee dram (Don’t miss the Distillery tours). The sailing can be sheltered if you wish and the tidal gates just require a wee bit planning.”
Oyster 72 'Luskentyre'
“Cruising in Scotland really opened our eyes to the fantastic destinations available on our doorstep in the UK, great sailing, quiet and protected lochs, and excellent local seafood provided a real adventure trip all from the comfort of an Oyster”
Read about Luskentyre’s Scotland cruise here.
The west coast of Scotland and it's surrounding islands cover a huge area to explore. Adfern Marina towards the head of Loch Craignish, or Craobh Marina, slightly further to the north, offer great places to base your boat for the season by placing you at the heart of this wild, varied and highly addictive region.
These cruise guides are intended as food for thought only based on the experiences of those who have been sailing in Scotland. They do not form a definitive guide. The locations should always be studied using the appropriate pilots and charts.
Pilot book suggestions:
In most cases there are many useful pilot books and guides that are available and should be consulted before and during the trip. Among those that come highly recommended are:
CCC Sailing Directions - Kintyre to Ardnamurchan (Imray)
South West Ireland Sailing Guide